Mark Cole Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture
Indian Combat 1868. Edmonia Lewis (American, about 1844–1907).Marble; 76.2 x 48.3 x 36.5 cm. American Painting and Sculpture Sundry Purchase Fund and Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 2011.110
In 2011, the Cleveland Museum of Art generated much excitement when it acquired Indian Combat, a newly discovered masterpiece by Edmonia Lewis (about 1844–1907). Due to its superb quality and condition, the sculpture was heralded widely as an important addition to her extant oeuvre. Of African American and Native American (Ojibwa) heritage, Lewis studied at Oberlin College before moving to Boston and apprenticing with a local artist. Soon after, in 1866, she established a studio in Rome, a popular destination for expatriate American and British sculptors who were inspired by Italy’s storied traditions in marble carving and its plentiful quarries. Spending the bulk of her career there, Lewis earned considerable fame and patronage, becoming the first sculptor of color to achieve international success.
Despite being known to the art world for only a short period of time, Indian Combat has sparked interest from a variety of researchers eager to comprehend its origins, history, and significance. Marilyn Richardson—the scholar of note regarding Lewis’s career—suggested that it is likely the object described as “Indians Wrestling” in a travel journal published in 1882 by a businessman from Meadville, Pennsylvania, who visited the artist’s studio during his Grand Tour through Europe in early 1868. It seems plausible that he misidentified the specific activity shown in Indian Combat, whose inclusion of three weapons raises its thematic ante from sport to conflict. Carolyn Corrigan, a Boston University graduate student who has made Indian Combat the focus of her forthcoming master’s thesis, tracked down a reference to the sculpture, described as depicting “an Indian fight,” in an article titled “A Colored Sculptress,” published in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel in April 1869. Such notices hint at the widespread knowledge of Lewis’s endeavors in her heyday; indeed, her career was publicized throughout this country from coast to coast.
I too have been devoting time to learning more about Indian Combat. Upon encountering the work, I recognized that its composition derives from a celebrated work by the Italian mannerist Giambologna (1529–1608), The Rape of the Sabine Women, which Lewis would have encountered during her travels through Florence. Admired for its complex integration of three figures engaged in forceful struggle, Giambologna’s sculpture provided an especially apt model for Lewis’s most dynamic and ambitious effort. Furthermore, knowing of Lewis’s keen interest in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha—indeed, her depictions of Hiawatha’s marriage to Minnehaha were her most popular works—I carefully studied the poem with Indian Combat in mind. My hunch is that our sculpture was inspired by a passage near the poem’s end, which relates Hiawatha’s pessimistic vision of Native American existence after encountering “the people with white faces”:
I beheld our nation scattered,
All forgetful of my counsels,
Weakened, warring with each other . . .
If this identification is correct, then Indian Combat marks the only occasion where Lewis alluded to the highly fraught issue of Indian and American relations in her art. As time goes on, the accumulation of knowledge regarding Indian Combat will undoubtedly continue to increase our understanding and appreciation of this fascinating work.
Cleveland Art, January/February 2013